The Wednesday Play: Second City Firsts – Mike Leigh’s The Permissive Society (1975)

The Permissive Society

England’s second city is Birmingham. You may not have known that, suspecting that Manchester should hold that title, and now that a big chunk of the BBC has moved to Salford, in terms of televisual output, you might be right.

But back in the 60s and 70s, BBC Birmingham and its Pebble Mill Studios were prodigious sources of television output, including, of course, the famous lunchtime show Pebble Mill (At One).

As well as contributing many programmes with little fanfare to the overall BBC output, including many entries to the Play For Today strand, between 1973 and 1978, BBC Birmingham had its own higher profile play strand: Second City Firsts. As the name suggests, as well showing off Birmingham and the Pebble Mill Studios, it was also intended to provide an outlet for first-time writers, with 42 writers contributing to the nine series of half-hour plays.

The most notable of these were Alan Bleasdale and Mike Leigh, and today’s Wednesday Play is Leigh’s Permissive Society. A short piece videotaped entirely in the studio, it features three characters: a couple – Les (Bob Mason) and Carol (Veronica Roberts) – and Les’s sister Yvonne (Rachel Davies). Les and Yvonne are both abrasive, and over the course of the evening, Carol realises she hasn’t much in common with her boyfriend. However, it turns out that the reasons for Les’s behaviour aren’t quite what they seem.

By turns cringe-worthy, funny and moving, Permissive Society highlights the fact that despite sex seemingly being everywhere in ‘the permissive society’, few people were yet very comfortable with it, let alone talking about it. It also includes Leigh’s trademark use of improvisation in developing the script, something that confused the BBC2 announcer enough to proclaim it an ‘unscripted play’ when it first aired.